By Helen Archontou, Chief Executive Officer of YWCA Bergen County
Many parents throughout New Jersey and the rest of the country are now completing a rite of passage: dropping off their son or daughter at college. It is often a bittersweet stop on the continuum that is parenting. It’s also a leap of faith.
In the wake of revelations about sexual assaults on campuses across the nation, that leap can feel more like a jump into a chasm of risk. For sure, the numbers are startling. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college.
Compounding the problem, rape is the most underreported crime; 90 percent of campus sexual assault victims do not report the crime to police. This alone — that so many assault victims would opt to suffer in silence — is a tragedy.
As a social worker by training, and a sexual assault prevention leader in Bergen County, I believe we can and must take action. In the short term, awareness is our best line of defense, but the pervasiveness of campus sexual violence is a call to action for parents, advocates, educators and legislators.
For college students on campus today, it is crucial that they understand their rights, have tools to stay safe in social situations and know where to get help if needed. Students also need information on consent, sexual violence, bystander intervention and healthy sexual relationships.
But to truly solve this problem, we need a long-term approach that starts way before students are even thinking about where to apply for college. We need to create a change in our culture, beginning in kindergarten and continuing, to teach children to respect and understand healthy behaviors and boundaries and to discern dangerous violations.
While there are some excellent programs for young children, they are not mandated. Further, such programs need to be coupled with a comprehensive public safety campaign, similar to the approach schools and communities adopted around the “stop, drop, and roll” advisory in case of a fire. We need to establish with young children a sense of comfort around talking about their bodies and their feelings. They need assistance in creating a safety plan so that if someone makes them feel uncomfortable, or touches a child inappropriately, that child knows what to do and where to turn.
The writer and advocate Erin Merryn — a childhood sexual assault survivor and inspiration for Erin’s Law, which calls for sexual assault prevention education for children — talks about how kids are taught “tornado drills, fire drills, bus drills. But no one teaches them sexual assault drills.”
It’s a tough time to be a young adult.
The constant barrage of explicit, often negative imagery of sexuality emitting from everywhere all the time, from video games, the Internet and television commercials is at best confusing and at worst desensitizing.
There are signs of hope and progress on the frontlines for today’s college kids. Movies like the documentary “The Hunting Ground” and the massive backlash over the lenient sentence for the so-called Stanford swimmer sex offender are creating important dialogue and a context for understanding. Higher education is responding to the threat with greater on-campus resources, by developing stronger relationships with law enforcement and by providing more informational sessions.
The Legislature has responded as well by putting together the State Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault. I’m grateful to be part of it, to help shape policy that will make our campus response to sexual assault even stronger.
Earlier this summer I was heartened to meet with Ramapo College officials who welcomed plans for YWCA Bergen County’s healingSPACE staff to participate in presenting campus trainings, and they also agreed to publish resource information in student handbooks about our services, including our mobile app, which puts help, information and a panic button within easy reach of students’ ever-present smartphones.
These are important, courageous steps. But, as I write, thousands of kids are making their way into the campus culture, working hard to figure out where they belong and how to belong. As the adults who love and support them, let’s keep the lines of communication open, have the hard conversations to keep young adults grounded and be sure they are getting the information they need for a safe campus experience.
Helen Archontou, M.S.W., L.S.W, is chief executive officer of YWCA Bergen County, which operates healingSPACE, the county’s designated sexual violence resource center. She is also a member of the State Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault.
YWCA’s Week Without Violence is part of a global movement to end violence against women and girls with the World YWCA. Want to join the movement to end gender-based violence? Learn more at www.YWCAweekwithoutviolence.org and join the conversation on Twitter with #WorkAgainstViolence.